Today, Jamaica stands in solidarity with the rest of the world in recognizing December 10 as Human Rights Day. Following years of strife and turmoil brought about by the Second World War, on December 10,1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a proclamation of the fundamental rights of all peoples to be protected and upheld, which remains the seminal international human rights instrument to this day.
Since independence Jamaica has ratified seven of the core international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Government of Jamaica is committed to its obligations under these international agreements, and has passed legislation to give effect to those obligations in Jamaican law, including the celebrated Disabilities Act 2014 that was recently enacted.
This year’s theme, “Human Rights 365”, reflects the idea that every day is human rights day. The philosophy of human rights is omnipresent, and should guide the rule of law and administration of justice at all levels. An important aspect of the role of the Ministry of Justice is to promote the protection of human rights in the delivery of justice services. It is recognised that the effective promotion and protection of human rights require the support of a dedicated and specialist mechanism charged with this function. In July of this year, the Ministry of Justice entered into discussions with the Commonwealth Secretariat for the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution for Jamaica. The dialogue is ongoing, as we consider how we can enhance existing human rights mechanisms to undertake this broader national mandate. The National Human Rights Institution will be a valuable addition to Jamaica’s human rights landscape.
The Government has made some important gains in the area of human rights since assuming office. In 2013 Jamaica passed legislation abolishing flogging and whipping as judicial sentencing options. This year the Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) Act was amended so that convictions for smoking or possession of small quantities of ganja no longer attract a criminal record, and to provide for the automatic expungement of past convictions for those minor offences. This was causing significant hardships for many Jamaicans, preventing them from obtaining employment, travelling overseas, accessing loans and generally resuming a normal, productive life. That legislation also shortens the period within which expungement becomes available for other offences, and extends the situations in which expungement is available.
Section 16(1) of the Constitution of Jamaica guarantees persons the right to “a fair hearing within a reasonable time”. The issue of access to the Courts and timely case resolution is therefore a human rights issue. The Evidence (Special Measures) Act has been passed to allow evidence to be given remotely through the use of technology where it would be otherwise unavailable, and to protect children or other vulnerable witnesses giving testimony. The Evidence (Amendment) Bill, now before Parliament, provides for a number of changes to modernize and expedite our dilatory trial procedures. Jamaica is also embracing Criminal Case Management as a multi-stakeholder effort to eliminate unnecessary delay and inefficient use of court time in the criminal justice system. In support of these efforts, we are introducing greater use of technology in the courts, including the electronic recording of evidence and audio-visual links between the courts and correctional and remand facilities for the hearing of mention dates and other pre-trial administrative procedures.
As it relates to access to justice, it is unfortunate that more than a decade after the inauguration of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Jamaica has not yet adopted the CCJ as its final Court of Appeal. A significant number of Jamaicans are unable to access the UK Privy Council, due to the visas and exorbitant costs involved. The CCJ is accessible to all Jamaicans, as it is an itinerant court that may sit in the territories from which its cases come, as it did in the Shanique Myrie case. The CCJ is also already fully paid for, and is not a charge on the budgets of its member states. The CCJ has now established an internationally acclaimed reputation for its jurisprudence, and the time has come for Jamaica to embrace the CCJ as our final appellate court, and thereby more fully protect the human rights of our people.
As we reflect on Human Rights Day, let us adopt the message of ‘365 days’ of human rights by playing our role in respecting and protecting the rights of each other, remembering that each one of us is our brother’s keeper.